In Your Face

15 04 2011

As if geo-loco promotional pushes onto our smartphones and targeted Facebook ads weren’t enough, now there is news of digital billboards that can change when they see you. Immersive Labs is testing new billboards that use facial recognition to recognize people, and then tailor the ad content. And no, it is not actually recognizing you as much as it is recognizing context-specific attributes, such as male, female, couple, with or without kids, etc.

Whew. I was scared there for a moment. (And I bet you were, too.)

But the billboard does have eyes, and can see you coming. It processes your countenance, and voila! the billboard changes based on what it sees. Furthermore, the system is smart enough to recognize age, and is cognizant of time of day and temperature. This allows highly customized appeals to be made.

And it also keeps track of how long you look at it. You know. Attention span. Like, are you still with me here? OR DO I NEED TO SHOUT?

Welcome to the world of customized marketing. Audience of One. Listen up.

And if this really does sound just a bit creepy, you probably are not alone. The truth, though, is that customized advertising is nothing new, just the technology being used. Most people wouldn’t bat an eye upon receiving custom robo-calls or junk mail, mostly because they are old hat. But a billboard that sees me coming? That’s pretty radical.

Of course, this raises the question of the billboard’s ability to focus on one or a couple of individuals who may be part of a larger crowd. It reminds me of those scenes on late-night talk shows when the host starts spinning a crazy yarn, and the camera suddenly focuses on an unwitting audience member. How are these billboards going to do that when there are dozens of people in proximity?

Furthermore, what if it makes a mistake? Like mistaking a guy for a gal (or vice-versa), or old for young? The insult factor could be pretty high (not to mention embarrassing if you’re out with friends.

Still, this is all a giant move in the right direction for advertisers. As invasive as advertising often is, would it not be better if we all received ads that might, pray tell, actually come a little closer to matching who we are and what we want? And is it not cheaper also for companies to be able to spend their advertising dollars on people most likely to purchase?

I am all for advertising that truly does cut through the marketing clutter, but for this to work, it must also cut through the human clutter. Sidewalks and streets are seldom vacant, so these babies are going to have to be able to train their digital eyes with laser precision.

The good news is that, no matter what, we consumers still have final veto power. We can still say no. We can still turn the other way. Marketers will never be able to gain that upper hand on us. Now if I could just remove that bullseye from my forehead. Sometimes I feel as if they know where I’m going to be before I get there.

Dr “Going Geo-Loco” Gerlich

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